Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – Colleen Moore, The Definitive Flapper
During the silent era, there were thousands of young girls who dreamed of being movie stars. For most girls, of course, these were merely daydreams, and the intrepid few who tried their luck in Hollywood often faced disappointment. But now and then a lucky individual did manage to “make good” in the movies. One of the most inspirational of these success stories is Colleen Moore’s. Not only did the confident young girl from Michigan find fame nearly beyond her wildest dreams, but she would also come to define “flapper” for a generation.
Kathleen Morrison was born in Port Huron, Michigan around 1899–later she would claim it was 1902. Her family moved frequently, from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Florida, and often spent summers in Chicago with Kathleen’s uncle Walter and aunt Liberty. As a child, Kathleen adored everything to do with the theater. She and her younger brother Cleeve formed their own “stock company” using a piano crate as a makeshift stage. Kathleen also used her dolls as “actors” in her own little plays (collecting dolls would be a lifelong passion for her).
As she grew older motion pictures became wildly popular, and Kathleen began frequenting movie theaters as often as she could. She bought fan magazines and kept a scrapbook of clippings of her favorite stars. Soon she became to dream of seeing herself up on that magical screen. She was so sure she could make it in the movies that she kept a blank page in her scrapbook, fondly reserving it for her own portrait when she became a star.
Fortunately for Kathleen, not only were the Essanay studios in Chicago not far from her aunt Liberty and uncle Walter’s house, but Walter was a Chicago newspaper editor who happened to be in contact with director D.W. Griffith. Kathleen and her relatives nabbed her a screen test at Essanay, partly to test her acting and partly to make sure her eyes photographed properly–she had one blue eye and one brown. The test being successful, Griffith’s Triangle-Fine Arts studio offered her a six-month contract and Kathleen was soon on a train heading to Hollywood. It was a dream come true.
Once in Hollywood, the teenaged Kathleen adopted a new name her family had chosen–Colleen Moore, concocted for its Irish air and appropriate length for a movie marquee. She was put to work acting opposite young star Robert Harron in The Bad Boy (1917), and then An Old Fashioned Young Man (1917). While Colleen was nervous in front of the camera at first, she studied the rushes for ways to improve. When her six-month contract was up she had no intentions of returning home. For Colleen, Hollywood was home.
She scored acting jobs at a variety of studios, including Christie, Fox, and Selig, and generally played love interests and girlish heroines. By the early 1920s, she was starting to make a name for herself and was best known for starring in Little Orphan Annie (1918). Still, she felt she needed a more distinct persona.
That all changed when she read the sensational (for the time) new novel Flaming Youth by Warner Fabian, about the unconventional “modern” lifestyles of three flapper sisters. Positive that the main character Pat Fentriss was perfect for her, Colleen asked her fiancé, producer John McCormick, to buy the rights to the novel. Later she recalled: “Never had I been so happy in a movie role before. I loved every scene. After six years of treacle, it was heaven to be given a little spice.” Flaming Youth (1923) turned out to be a sensation, mainly because of Colleen’s sparkling performance–and her chic new look, a Dutch bob.
Slender, energetic young Colleen was an ideal fit for the role of a flapper, then a new type of heroine. Flappers, with their edgy fashions and love of adventure and good times, were making a huge impact on popular culture and Colleen was among the earliest actresses to portray them in the movies. Arguably she would be the most influential, being identified as a flapper “type” even before Clara Bow.
Flaming Youth was followed up by many other light comedy hits, including The Perfect Flapper (1924), We Moderns (1925), Irene (1926) and Colleen’s biggest success, Lilac Time (1928) co-starring Gary Cooper. Her spunky, fun-loving flappers tended to put on a show of being “modern,” but were still good girls at heart–the kind of flapper a mother didn’t need to worry too much about.
By the end of the 1920s, Colleen was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and had a beautiful mansion in Bel-Air. Unfortunately, her marriage to John McCormick was on the rocks, due to his alcoholism. They would divorce in 1930, around the time talkies were officially replacing silent films. Colleen then tried her hand at talkies, including The Scarlet Letter (1934), but after only four she decided to retire from the screen. Having already achieved success beyond her wildest girlhood dreams, she wisely decided to quit while she was ahead.
Colleen kept busy in retirement. After a brief marriage to a stockbroker she married Homer Hargrave, a widower with two children, and this time the marriage lasted until Homer’s death in 1964. She wrote two books–her autobiography Silent Star and How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market–and eventually formed a TV production company. But her most famous post-Hollywood project was her “Fairy Castle,” a huge, elaborate dollhouse that measured nine square feet. Colleen and her father started the dollhouse in 1928, having it carefully designed and decorated by professional artists and craftsmen. It was filled with beautiful miniature furnishings, paintings, murals, chandeliers, and decorative objects, made from precious materials whenever possible. Colleen continued to add to her work of art until her death, and today it’s housed in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Moore worked with hundreds of craftsmen over the course of a decade to build her “Fairy Castle”. She completed it at the cost of some $500,000. Among its many one-of-a-kind features is a library that comes complete with miniature versions of many great works of literature.
Colleen also took steps to protect her films, sending them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in hopes of having them preserved. Tragically, the films were improperly stored and many ended up decomposing. Colleen’s last marriage was to builder Paul Maginot in 1982, and she would pass away from cancer in 1988.
While today she’s sometimes overshadowed by popular flapper-type actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore was the spirited personality who helped pave the way for them. Not only are her surviving films wonderful time capsules of the era, but Colleen’s acting remains as fresh today as it was in the 1920s. She is not only a delightful talent, but she has what is truly one of Hollywood’s most inspiring success stories.
“Don’t worry, girls. No edict of fashion arbiters will ever swathe you in long and cumbersome skirts. The American girl will see to this. She is independent, a thinker will not follow slavishly the ordinances of those who in the past have decreed this or that for her to wear.”
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.